Walking the Line
Bill Burr talks trust, evolution and fans
“Sometimes you feel like there’s walls all around you, and you’re at the bottom of a chimney and you’re thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to get out of this?’ But then you find a door, and there’s this whole other place you never knew about,” says comic Bill Burr, who performs at Route 66 Casino on Jan. 18, about the comedic process and the feeling a comic gets when they’re creating something new. For Burr, one of the most prolific and daring comics, this process is an ongoing one.
Burr is known for pushing the limits. While ranting onstage about the 2012 election, Burr said, “I’m waiting for the honest guy who is going to get on TV and say, ‘For this entire [country] to work, about two-thirds of you are going to have to go to the beach and just walk into the ocean.” Met with uproarious laughter, this one line embodies the way Burr approaches comedy: It isn’t safe, and it isn’t easily digested, but it should make the audience face realities. It’s taken Burr his entire career to get to this truthfully dark voice. “It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision,” he says. “In the beginning, your head’s on a swivel and you’re looking at everyone else and wondering, how do you do this? How do you write a joke? But you make your own trail and you begin to trust your instincts. And if they’re pulling you further left than everyone else, it doesn’t matter because you trust it.”
Burr walks the line between being socially aware and yet completely challenging to his audience. His comedy is always personal and rarely absurd, refusing to hide behind surrealism or misplaced irony like so many other comics. “Evidently some people didn’t get it. It’s not okay to slam your wife’s head in the cupboard doors because she didn’t dry the can opener off properly,” Burr says in one of his most notorious sets, mocking how we discuss domestic violence. “How the hell do you not know not to do that shit? Do they really have to keep talking about it? Like wife beaters are watching and saying, 'Oh fuck! Aahhh! Now I get it! Oopsie daisy sweetheart.'” There's nothing stagnant about this kind of comedy. And although it may be shocking at first, comics like Burr are vital to how we view the world.
“In the beginning, your head’s on a swivel and you’re looking at everyone else and wondering, how do you do this? How do you write a joke? But you make your own trail and you begin to trust your instincts. And if they’re pulling you further left than everyone else, it doesn’t matter because you trust it.”
In this set, Burr is not making light of domestic violence; he is not victim blaming. Rather, he's placing blame where it should be—on the perpetrator who should know better. But he does so in a way that makes the audience face the reality and pointlessness of the abuse. Burr does this kind of comedy because he trusts his audience: “My crowd likes to drink, they like to laugh, and they’re smart. They’re probably smarter than me.”
Burr has a deep connection to his audience. Rabid fans catch his Monday Morning Podcast every week and attend his shows, sometimes traveling hours and hours just to get to them. This year Burr is making the effort to travel to those places that are often bypassed by big comedians like him. “You’re weaving through the mountains and you definitely get off the highway and take the longer route,” he says about his travels though small-town America. “I think I’m gradually becoming RV guy.” He chose Albuquerque as one of his stops because of his time here filming scenes for “Breaking Bad.” “I did five episodes, and it was the most surreal thing because I was so emotionally invested as a fan. I never had more than a two-day shoot and then I was spit back on my couch watching the show,” he says of his time filming. “And I knew when my episode was coming up, but there I would appear on the screen and it was so bizarre. It was like my evil twin or something. What am I doing in that world?”
Whether it’s his acting career or his comedy, Burr is intent on continual growth. “I think what really hurts you as an artist is when you become like stagnant water,” says Burr about his lifelong comedic journey. “If you think, ‘Okay, this is my bag of tricks, and this is my style,’ then it becomes like that movie Groundhog Day and you have to go on stage and tell the same jokes over and over and try to get people to laugh—and that, I do not wish on anybody.” This openness to evolving as an artist keeps Burr relevant and interesting, but it’s his deeply personal comedy that makes him such a dynamic performer.